Guitar: Overdrive Pedal vs Amp Overdrive

Pushing a tube amp until it produces an overdriven sound is one of the great pleasures of playing guitar. 

But it’s not always practical and although it sounds great it’s been done millions of times. 

So overdrive pedals are worth checking out if you want more of a signature sound or if you can’t turn up your amp too far.

Overdrive pedals offer some nice tone-shaping advantages and can be enabled and disabled easily. But if you prefer the sound of overdriven tube amps like I do and are thinking of adding a pedal to your collection, maybe what you need is a clean boost pedal to push your tubes into saturation territory.

The type of music you want to play can probably help you decide how you should achieve your overdrive sound. 

Feel free to disagree, but I usually associate amp overdrive with classic rock that is played loud and uses the same tone consistently. 

And I think overdrive pedals are popular with blues or blues-rock players who sometimes want a warm thick sound without getting too crazy. 

So what are some of the options?

Are overdrive pedals better than amp overdrives?

Overdrive pedals have their own controls that let you shape your tone easily whereas overdriving your amp can sometimes be a one-trick pony. 

And for performing live or recording situations the option to switch them on and off easily with your foot is a huge deal if you need different tones for different parts of songs. 

Lastly, they are useful for getting the sound you want without the volume that some amps need to sound good. 

But no matter how neat your setup is, effects pedals do complicate your signal chain and add possible problem points with more cables and batteries/power supplies that can go bad at the worst possible moment.

Can overdrive pedals sound just like amp overdrives?

Overdrive pedals can sound great of course and have their uses but they can’t really compare to the saturation that you can get with tube amps in my opinion. 

There are some overdrive pedals that use tubes but most don’t and if you think about it most overdrive pedals are solid-state technology. 

So if those overdrive pedals were equal to the real thing then people wouldn’t still be buying expensive tube amps, would they?

Are amp overdrives better than overdrive pedals?

Let’s not pretend that all amplifiers are on the same level. 

You can spend a couple of hundred dollars or thousands on tube amps. 

There is a point of diminishing returns but there are plenty of amps in the mid-price range that sound amazing when they are pushed hard and nothing beats them for that famous rock sound. 

But overdrive pedals come in a lot of varieties and some of the most popular are the Boss SD-1 Overdrive, Boss BD-2 Blues Driver, and Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer. 

If you follow music gear, I’m sure by now you have heard of the infamous Klon Centaur overdrive pedals that sell for insane amounts of money but I would rather invest that money in a nice amp myself.

Why choose one? Using overdrive pedals alongside amp overdrive

Of course, you can use an overdrive pedal with an overdriven amp if you want. 

And if you have a solid-state amp and you don’t like the tone with the amp’s boost or gain channel engaged you can try adding an overdrive pedal to see if it helps you achieve the tone you want. 

But if you do this with a tube amp and practice at one volume and then play a gig with the amp turned up louder, the results will be different. 

I’m not saying you can’t do it, just keep in mind that the amp will react differently. 

It’s worth mentioning that there was a series of retro-looking tube amplifiers made by Ibanez called TSA##### (you know how Ibanez model names are). 

This series of amps had Ibanez Tube Screamer pedal circuits built right into the amps so if you are starting from scratch they might be worth hunting down on the used market. 

Can overdrive pedals help you get your amp to break up?

Running an overdrive pedal into your tube amplifier will help to push your amp harder for tube saturation but maybe it’s not the answer you are looking for. 

If you are trying to use a tube amp’s natural overdrive then you don’t necessarily need the overdrive of a pedal because it will color the tone as well. 

Instead, I think you should look into clean boost pedals in order to help your amp break up, provided that you are happy with the sound of the amp you have. 

This should allow you to run your amp at lower volumes and still get some great tones. 

But what if you aren’t crazy about your amplifier’s natural distortion or you have a solid-state amp and decide to go with an overdrive pedal? 

I would suggest first doing some research into what gear your favorite musicians use and start from there. 

A lot of information is available online or in published interviews and photos.

Then go to a brick-and-mortar store and listen to the ones on your shortlist in person. 

That should give you the best chance of getting the right pedal for your style. 

And no, I don’t think you need a Centaur Klon overdrive pedal.